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By Jason Snell

2020 iMac review: The last picture show

iMac

This has got to be the end, right?

Apple has announced that it’s moving the Mac to Apple-designed processors. The design of the iMac is stale and in desperate need of reinvention—just as it was last year when Apple updated the iMac. But before the transition to Apple silicon arrives, it’s time for one last hurrah.

The 2020 revision to the 27-inch iMac adds in many (but not all) of the features of the late 2017 iMac Pro. It’s an update with some intriguing options and which addresses some of the iMac line’s most glaring weaknesses. If this is the end of the Intel Mac era, at least it’s going out with a bang.

Forget about the smaller iMac

This update is all about the 27-inch iMac. The 21.5-inch model, which was already a step behind its big brother (using eighth-generation Intel processors, rather than the ninth-generation processors in the 2019 model 27-inch iMac), hasn’t been updated at all.

The base configurations of both models have been altered to include at least a 256GB solid-state drive for storage, rather than a spinning hard drive. This is a good move. While 256GB of storage isn’t a lot, the speed of an SSD improves the base iMac experience dramatically. Buyers of new iMacs can opt for a 1TB Fusion drive instead for the same price; post-purchase, there are plenty of options out there—including some pretty affordable external SSDs if speed is a priority, and spinning discs if you need a lot of room.

But that all said, I can’t recommend anyone buying the 21.5-inch 4K iMac right now if you can avoid it. Not only is it old, but it’s a prime candidate to be one of the first Macs to get an Apple silicon makeover.

The 27-inch iMac, on the other hand, is much more interesting, and worth serious consideration if you’re in the market for a desktop Mac.

The big feature

Now, this review is going to feature all the stuff you’re used to seeing in a computer review. I promise that there will be some bar charts comparing the speed of the new top-of-the-line iMac to my reliable (and, as of this week, discontinued!) 8-core iMac Pro. I’ll detail some of the internal changes made to these iMacs. There’s more here than you might expect.

This is an approximation of what a reflection (of a floor lamp, right side of the screen) looks like on the nano-texture display. It’s incredibly diffuse.

But I need to begin with what is probably the single biggest reason people will buy this iMac: As a $500 option, you can trade in the normal glass on the front of the iMac for a glass sheet that’s been etched by Apple to create a glare-killing “nano-texture.” This is the same technique Apple uses to create the $1000 anti-glare option for the Apple Pro Display XDR. It comes with a special cloth you’re supposed to use to clean it. Apple will sell you a replacement cloth for $10 if you lose it.

But here’s the thing: It’s spectacular. The nano-texture glass doesn’t stop all light from bouncing off the display and back into your eyes, but it cuts it down and diffuses it remarkably. Unlike so many add-on films and coatings that cut down on glare but make a display feel murky or muddy, the iMac’s display feels unnaturally clear. Even with a window directly behind me, I could see everything on the screen clearly.

If you’re someone who struggles with glare on your monitor, especially if you’re a graphics or video pro for whom every little visual detail matters, you might have sighed at the cost of the Pro Display XDR (let alone the $1000 add-on for the nano-texture). Now it’s here as a $500 option on an iMac. (This is otherwise the same excellent 5K iMac display seen in previous models.) I suspect Apple is going to sell a lot of iMacs just for its nano-texture display.

Inherited from other Macs

If this is the last Intel iMac, at least the 2020 27-inch iMac takes advantage of the last few years of Mac progress. (Better late than never!)

Most of these new features spring from the addition of the T2 processor introduced with the iMac Pro in 2017. This Apple-designed coprocessor replaces a bunch of other chips and enables all sorts of features, like “Hey Siri,” seamless disk encryption, and even digital signal processing that can dynamically adjust the settings of the iMac’s webcam. (It’s now a 1080 HD camera, by the way, also matching the iMac Pro.)

Though the iMac’s speakers haven’t changed, Apple says that the audio is also processed by the T2, as it is on the 16-inch MacBook Pro. This allows Apple to dynamically adjust EQ settings as volume levels change, which should make quieter volumes still have more audible bass. I am happy to report that the iMac’s speakers do sound very good.

Another feature picked up from the 16-inch MacBook Pro is what Apple is calling a “studio quality” microphone. It’s actually three microphones in an array; there are two behind invisible microperforations in the iMac’s aluminum chin, just to the right of the Apple logo, and another one in a visible microperforation on the machine’s back side. The iMac processes the signal from those three microphones and cancels out echo and background noise, improving audio whether you’re creating a song demo in GarageBand or just talking to your colleagues in a videoconference.

I recorded my voice on the new iMac and on my iMac Pro’s built-in microphone, and honestly I think I preferred the recording from the iMac Pro. I’m sure that in certain circumstances these microphones can provide good-enough audio, but I have to admit that I’m a little baffled about how Apple can call them “studio quality,” because I would be quite disappointed if someone sent me an audio file of this quality after a podcast recording session.

This new 27-inch iMac also adds support for TrueTone, which uses a light sensor to automatically match the white point of the iMac’s display to the predominant color temperature of its locale. (And yes, you can turn it off if you don’t want your display’s white point shifting all the time.) And like the Mac mini before it, the 27-inch iMac can now optionally be configured with support for 10-Gigabit Ethernet (which comes standard on the iMac Pro).

10 generations, 10 cores

If it’s a last hurrah, the iMac is going out with a bang—the latest and greatest 10th-generation Intel core processors. Most impressive is the fact that the high-end model, which is the one I tested, has ten processor cores. It’s so many cores, in fact, that it’s shamed the old eight-core right out of existence—now the base-model iMac Pro is the ten-core version.

That’s probably a good move, since in my tests, the 10-core i9 iMac configuration beat the pants off of my poor 8-core iMac Pro. Last year’s top-of-the-line iMac beat my iMac Pro at many tests, but the ol’ girl eked out a few wins of her own. This year, it’s no contest.

With the addition of so many new features and these powerful new processors, it’s worth asking the question: why pay $4999 for an iMac Pro when you can spend $3299 for an iMac with similar specs?

Well, you probably shouldn’t. But while the iMac Pro may start at 10 cores, it does go up to 18 cores—a configuration that will cost a lot more, but will also deliver greater performance. If you need copious amounts of multi-core performance, the iMac Pro can deliver.

The other reason is, quite simply, the robustness of the iMac Pro cooling system. The iMac’s cooling system, while upgraded somewhat in order to account for the new processors, is still much weaker than the system in the iMac Pro. When running my speed tests for this review, the iMac’s fans spun up immediately and were clearly audible as long as the computer was under load. My iMac Pro, on the other hand, didn’t break a sweat as it silently blew hot air out of its superior cooling system. If fan noise matters to you, the iMac Pro wins hands down. But no nano-texture display for you!

Where do we go from here?

Should you buy a new Mac when Apple is about to switch up the Mac’s chip architecture? It depends on your worldview. If you want to be on the cutting edge, this new iMac will feel outmoded within months. But if you want a reliable and powerful computer that’s based on well-understood technology that will serve you well for years, this iMac will deliver.

Which leads me to ponder what happens next for the iMac. As I wrote at Macworld earlier this week, it feels like this 27-inch iMac refresh allows Apple to attend to some other, more needy products in the earliest days of the transition to Apple silicon.

There’s not a Mac more needy than the smaller iMac. Perhaps the little buddy will blaze a trail for its larger sibling to follow. I love the iMac, but it’s wearing a bit thin. It’s time for a regeneration. I hope that this new 27-inch iMac, as impressive as it is, is remembered as the last (and best) of its kind.

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